By COLIN STAUB
Student workers at the University of Oregon have been gathering cards to form an independent union since October. Last weekend, university management fired a vocal union supporter, and workers tell the Labor Press other seemingly retaliatory actions have followed.
The University of Oregon Student Workers Union (UOSW) is an effort to organize all undergraduate student workers at the Eugene campus, a group of more than 3,000 workers. They work in housing, dining, campus events and other jobs.
Organizers have majority support in multiple departments and are working toward getting 50% support across the unit, student worker Ella Meloy told the Labor Press. That would allow them to affiliate using the card check process available in public employer union campaigns.
A University spokesperson told the Register-Guard newspaper last month that the school “does not take a position with respect to unionization efforts.” But workers say that doesn’t ring true, especially after the campaign was featured in a Feb. 10 article in The Nation magazine.
In the story, students described their union interest and offered examples of apparent anti-union actions by management. Among them, UO sophomore Will Garrahan mentioned union posters had been removed from his workplace, a dining hall on campus.
A day after the story ran, Garrahan, who has worked on campus six months (making him a relatively long-term student worker), was fired. His offense, according to the manager: Earlier in the week, half an hour before the dining hall closed and the remaining hot food would be thrown away, Garrahan had made himself a bowl of food without paying for it. It’s a common practice for student workers and managers alike, he says, and although it’s technically against the rules, Garrahan and two other students tell the Labor Press they’ve never seen anyone else get fired for it.
“I believe this is retaliation against me for being part of the union and being the most vocal union organizer in our workplace,” he recalls telling his manager. The manager replied that he was just doing his job, Garrahan said.
As he left the manager’s office and was telling coworkers he’d been fired, another vocal union supporter was called into the manager’s office and told her hours would be cut.
The termination and cut hours came after other anti-union actions, including the university suddenly enforcing a ban on student workers wearing buttons and pins on the job, a ban that only emerged when the buttons were union-themed.
In response, five dining hall workers walked off the job on Feb. 10 and confronted their boss, decrying the discipline actions. On Feb. 13, the UOSW organizing committee filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB), which manages public-sector labor matters. In their filing, the students asked that ERB expedite consideration of the complaint, noting that Garrahan needs the job to pay tuition and rent, and that they worry the university’s actions could have a chilling effect on the card collection campaign.
Students say the retaliation makes it clear the university’s claim of neutrality is false.
“Their words are saying one thing, but their actions are making it blatantly clear that they are anti-unionization,” said Elizabeth White, an organizer with UOSW.
Update: The university communications department sent the following statement to the Labor Press on Feb. 16: “While federal privacy law prohibits disclosing reasons for termination, the university can confirm the termination was wholly unrelated to any union activity.”